This coffee klatch was really about the coffee
Coffee is many things to many people, but all coffee makers revere its role in bringing people together to talk — which is what it did Friday morning, as some of Cambridge’s coffee elite met at Toscanini’s in Central Square to talk about what’s good, bad, old and new in the industry, and what Cambridge is doing about it.
The brewers and aficionados included Gus Rancatore, of Toscanini’s; Jaime Van Schyndel, the roaster behind Barismo in Arlington and dwelltime, the cafe under construction on Broadway in Cambridge; Lucy R. Valena of Voltage Coffee & Art in Kendall Square; Joshua Gerber of 1369 Coffeehouse in Central and Inman squares; Simon Yu and Alison Novak of Simon’s Coffee Shop in Porter Square; Corby Kummer, a food writer (including of “The Joy of Coffee”) and a senior editor at The Atlantic; Corky White, a Boston University anthropology professor and author of “Coffee Life in Japan”; Sandra Fairbank, restaurant designer and author of an unpublished book on French cafes; and Vaughn Tan, a food writer and Harvard business and sociology student.
Because it was opening day at the Hi-Rise Bread Company location at 1663 Massachusetts Ave., the baristas and brewers who couldn’t come sent a box of cookies — delicious, artisanal Oreos with an intense, slightly bitter chocolate and astonishingly rich cream.
There was a calling out of Keurig, the maker of home and office coffee machines and their infernal individual-serving, one-use K-Cup packets, for reasons of low quality, skimming of customers and environmental waste.
And there was, of course, industry gossip — “Seattle peaked. There’s now a lot of entitlement, but not really a scene. I haven’t heard people talk about Victrola [Coffee Roasters] for about two years” — and discussion of how to distinguish trends from fads and whether to pursue either. “A couple of years ago you had to have a Clover machine, now no one wants one,” Rancatore said, while White noted the newest phase: Japanese equipment. “You can only know it was a fad when it’s over,” she said.
But the topics that dominated were Starbucks, sameness, crafting distinct coffee communities and where Cambridge fits in all that.
“Cambridge should be a hotbed,” said Van Schyndel, although he worried there would be a rush of coffee shops opening, even next to other shops. “I’m concerned on this side of river we’re dragging our feet.”
Rancatore and White provided a history lesson of Cambridge’s coffee explosion in the beat 1950s, with some 16 shops in Harvard Square alone, three crammed in where the square’s post office sits. The boom included the Blue Parrot and Cafe Capriccio, which reopened as Cafe Mozart; the survivor from that era is Cafe Pamplona, which came along in 1958.
“So we’ve been there, in a way,” White said.
There are five or six cafes just in Harvard Square, including three Starbucks — and the months-old addition to the chain that even drew praise for the design of its second-story space — “and here we all are,” Rancatore said, looking at the proprietors gathered around his shop’s Big Table. (Rancatore knows something about this. He ran the Someday Cafe in Somerville’s Davis Square before, during and after the arrival of a Starbucks. It closed in a landlord dispute, replaced by a crepe restaurant, but Diesel Cafe continues to thrive directly across the street from the chain location.)
The trick is to serve different, if overlapping communities, the group said. Most expressed a degree of horror at some cafes’ laptop culture (“I cannot work in a cafe,” Tan said. “I never go to Diesel because everyone’s working, and I haven’t been in a Starbucks in 15 years”), with Barismo being famously unfriendly to lingerers with laptops and Hi-Rise reputed to have opened without a single outlet for customer use. But Van Schyndel said dwelltime will have a communal outlet, like Toscanini’s, so laptop users are clustered. While he knows he’ll draw venture capitalists with business to discuss, he also knows he’ll draw knitters and craftspeople from the neighboring Gather Here, and prefers to focus on the space he’s carving out for people to come in to give talks or lead discussions.
“Everybody can cater to different groups,” Van Schyndel said. “It’s not about turning people away.”
For 1369, there is no ideal customer, Gerber said. “For me, the ideal customer is a regular customer. We pride ourselves on being a place where kids with tattoos and grandmas come — where people who don’t normally interact do. I’ve seen badass crazy customers take 15 minutes to talk to a venture capitalist. I love that,” he said. “I appreciate certain things in customers: people with a willingness to talk, who come back and who are interested in food and have a community perspective.”
Seattle transplant Valena — who’s hosting the next likely get-together for the coffee crowd, a Nov. 5 barista masquerade with “no throwdowns, just dancing and beer” — has a unique mix of challenges and gifts at Voltage, a West Coast-influenced cafe that is leading square development into being a destination for more than innovation-industry workers.
Valena can look forward to potential years of disruption from MIT’s reconstruction of 26 acres around the nearby red line T stop and work on the Constellation Center performance space intended to go across the street. But she can also anticipate plenty of business from architects, engineers and construction contractors to add to the art fans and venture capitalists she already gets.
If not a lesson applicable to all coffee entrepreneurs, her mix of customers at least offers her plenty of entertainment.
“It’s a contemporary art space with a contemporary vibe, but it’s full of all these suits talking about high-profile products — and I’ve offered them a choice between cinnamon toast and animal crackers,” Valena said. “If we shut down to set up for an arts exhibit, it’s all business people, and we shut down for hour and its all hipsters. Its a destination for hipsters and it’s a ‘local’ for business.”